Last week, when the Congress succeeded in prevailing upon Sonia Gandhi to take charge of the party just 20 months after she had stepped aside in favour of her son Rahul Gandhi, the occasion was not marked by any grand celebrations. There was just quiet satisfaction and relief that the Congress had finally managed to find a solution to the leadership crisis which had hit the party when Rahul Gandhi put in his papers two months ago.
But the overriding relief in the party is also tinged with concern about the future. Though Congress insiders acknowledge that with Sonia Gandhi at the helm, they have managed to save the party from withering away further, the doubts refuse to go away. These stem from the realisation that Sonia Gandhi will not be able to exercise the same authority as she did in her earlier two-decade stint as Congress president and that she faces a far tougher road ahead than the one traversed on taking over as party chief in 1998.
After all, she is now 72 years old and does not keep good health. This has understandably slowed her down considerably. While her energy levels have dipped, her political reflexes are also not as sharp as they were earlier.
Scratch the surface and Congress leaders will confess: “With Sonia Gandhi’s return, we have saved the party from splitting and staved off an immediate crisis. But we don’t know what the future holds for us…where do we go from here.”
“What next” haunts the Congress as insiders acknowledge that the 134-year-old party is in a fine mess today. The leadership issue may have been resolved for now, but Sonia Gandhi faces a long haul ahead. The Congress is on the brink of collapse, the party organisation is in tatters, there have been a series of desertions while its credibility has touched a new low.
Besides, Congress has been unable to come up with an effective counter as the Bharatiya Janata Party pushes ahead with its agenda of Hindu majoritarianism and uber nationalism. The grand old party is hopelessly out of touch with the common man while the BJP has, as a despondent Congress leader pointed out, “successfully captured the minds of the people.”
“Not only is our party organisation weak, we are also ideologically hollow,” remarked a senior Congress leader.
Questions are being asked if Sonia Gandhi will have the appetite to deal bravely and squarely with these festering issues, especially since it is well acknowledged in the party that her current presidency is, at best, a holding operation. She has been named interim president “pending the election of a regular president by the AICC”, according to the resolution adopted by the Congress Working Committee on August 10.
No timeline has been laid down for the election, but it is accepted by the party that Sonia Gandhi will step down when Rahul or Priyanka is ready to take charge. Of the two, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is clearly preparing for it. Her trips to Uttar Pradesh to meet the families of victims who were killed in firing in Sonbhadra, the frequency of her tweets on current issues and the elan with which she manages to remain in the public gaze suggest that she is working to a plan.
But irrespective of who replaces Sonia Gandhi, Congress is clear it is not ready to sever its ties with the Nehru-Gandhi family. This was evident from the August 10 developments when there was unanimity at the day-long deliberations by leaders that Rahul Gandhi be persuaded to reconsider his decision to step down as party chief, failing which Priyanka Gandhi Vadra should be asked to take on this task. When the two refused, the automatic choice was Sonia Gandhi.
But there was no question of looking beyond the family. Besides, with three members of the Gandhi family active in the party, a non-Gandhi Congress president would be constantly looking over his or her shoulder, making it impossible to function autonomously.
“Never mind the charge of dynastic politics ..we need the Gandhi family at the helm or else the party would splinter,” remarked a senior Congress leader.
(The writer is a senior journalist. This column will appear every fortnight)